Thursday, June 11, 2009

In Praise of Gygaxian Combat (Part 2)

I was running out the door to catch a bus this morning, so I figured I’d take a little extra time to elaborate on my earlier post. I said that the Gygaxian combat system was elegant, purposeful, and heroic. Here’s what I meant:

Elegance: an abstract combat system, it boils down all the strikes, feints, dodges, sucker punches, kicks, etc. into one attack roll. In fact, “to hit” is a pretty misleading term (one of the reasons I dislike “THAC0”)…the roll describes whether or not you are able to do damage to your opponent in a particular round. In this way, all those complaints people have about “armor absorbs damage, it doesn’t make it harder to hit” are moot. Gygax’s “armor class” takes damage prevention into account by reducing one’s chance of reducing hit points in a given round (by reducing the chance an attack will succeed). The thing that D&D players (including DMs) need to get away from is the idea that one roll = one swing of the sword/mace/staff. Stop saying, “I swing at him;” the narrative of combat can be much more flavorful despite its simple base mechanic. It doesn’t have to be boring!

Purposeful: Gygax outlines that indeed one could devise a combat system that is more granular, and in fact states that other game systems that do so. His does not. This is a clear look at behind the curtain of game design…D&D in its early form was not conceived to model blow-by-blow combat. Gygax cites his reasons, but in practice (say…with D20 or TROS) I have experienced that, from a practical standpoint, combats run faster and character effectiveness (in this case the ability of the player to enjoy the game at full capacity) doesn’t diminish. D&D combat wasn’t designed unconsciously.

Heroic: the abstract design of the system certainly allows for heroic action on the part of the player characters. As Gygax writes later in the DMG (regarding hit points), a single sword thrust can kill anyone. The abstract manner of hit point deduction without penalty allows characters of high level to stand heroically against many such sword thrusts that would kill an ordinary mortal. But for me, that’s not the most interesting, or heroic part of the section.

In re-reading page 61, it caught my eye that this combat system does not (and I presume was not intended) to model equally for both players and monsters. A human or elf might not be able to survive a single sword thrust through the belly, but a dragon or giant certainly could. Hit points in most monsters represent actual capacity to take damage. The implication is subtle yet profound…an experienced character can stand toe-to-toe with the Titans of the Age and fight on a roughly equal footing. Whereas a normal man would be torn apart by, say, a manticore, a 10th level fighter could certainly hold his own and triumph in one-on-one combat.

D&D characters ARE heroic..the simple (but encompassing), purposeful combat system allows players to represent many of the literary and cinematic masterpieces of fantasy.

It’s too bad that video games like WoW, so clearly drawn from D&D roots, have failed to grasp or implicate this basic combat system…instead it labors under the one attack = one swing delusion and characters with hundreds of “health” points are shown unrealistically absorbing damage from bites, claws, sword thrusts, arrows, etc.. But I suppose that’s comparing apples to oranges. Video games are a different (and much more limited) medium than D&D and the human imagination.

Now what does that say about D20 and its movement towards a more video game-like system?


  1. I always wondered how people got into the "one roll = one swing" mindset when combat rounds were supposed to last one minute.

    That being said, sometimes I vary the length of a combat round in my AD&D game. If one character is fighting a giant rat on his own, they probably do not circle, feint, etc... it's probably pretty fast and furious.

    I find that I'm liking the abstract aspect of hit points and combat rounds more and more.

  2., too. I'm starting to think the who game was a work of profound genius. With regard to giant rats...the things usually die in 1-2 blows (i.e. successful attacks). A mid+ level character isn't going to have too hard a time making a successful attack roll against the rat's high armor class. But the narrative description, rather than include circling and feints, is probably going to be repeatedly striking at the nimble little beast, trying to land a crushing shot to the skull or spine.

    Even in B/X, where rounds are only ten seconds, 10 seconds are A LOT of time in a fight. I'm not a 1st level fighter, myself, but I can swing a club faster than once per round (1 per second is more like it).

  3. Good post! :)

    I think the problem with the system is the terms used. "Hit" points. Rolling to "hit". "Damage". That's not what the system is representing though - it's legacy terminology from naval wargames that was adapted for use in D&D.

    As for Giant Rats... there's an ROUS battle in the movie "The Princess Bride". :D

  4. I have played D&D from the Blue Box till now. I have always viewed hit points this way. In fact it is one of the primary reasons I defend 4E healing surges. 'Hits' to a hero just fatigue them, as they had to make a huge effort to not get run through. After a fight, the Heroes catch their breath and are good to go(healing surges). When they keep getting hammered through the day their fatigue grows until they can't do it anymore and finally let their guard down and the enemy sword hits home (when they go to negative hit points).

  5. @JesterOC: I agree with you on that point in 4e - it's one of the better mechanics they introduced. I don't like it being called a "healing surge" though since it's not about healing and wounds... it's like you say, about being fatigued and catching their breath.

  6. Yeah, I am very, very tempted to institute a "second wind" mechanic that does something similar to healing surges in my Labyrinth Lord game.

  7. Great article! Many fine points made.

    The one thing I wonder at is why you would have a dislike of "THAC0" when you so readily postulate that other terms are simply misapplied or misunderstood.

    Just as easily as you toss aside the literal wording of the "to hit" rule for its intended meaning, one could say that THAC0's "to hit armor class 0" merely implies the number to roll such that during that minute of ducking, weaving, swinging, and thrusting, you manage to cause their hit point total to go down.

  8. My dislike for THAC0 is admittedly a personal matter of taste. I associate it with 2nd edition D&D, which I dislike. Mmmm...maybe there's more to it than that, but that's a separate subject.

  9. I associate it with 2nd edition D&D, which I dislike.

    That's what I suspected; not that you had a problem with some random, easily reapplied or redefined term, but that you just didn't like that particular edition. Understandable, but it didn't fit with the logic of the rest of the post.

  10. Yep, I'm an opinionated hack. Watch me blog!
    : )